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La Leyenda Negra/The Black Legend: Historical Distortion, Defamation, Slander, Libel, and Stereotyping of Hispanics

This series was originally published in Somos Primos, 104th-115th Issue

Part I
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

I was having dinner, not too long ago, with a group of librarians at an ALA conference in Philadelphia when the conversation turned to Hispanics apropos some new titles just published about the Spaniards in North America when one of the librarians remarked off-handedly that the Spaniards didn’t really do much with North America other than to desecrate it in their search for gold. And how did she know that, I asked. Whereupon she responded that it was well documented. Well-documented indeed!

Hispanics in general, and American Hispanics (U.S. Hispanics) in particular, have been the butt of historical distortion, defamation, slander, libel, and stereotyping in an unbroken string of public perceptions since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Queen Elizabeth lost no time in turning the inglorious Spanish defeat into a major public relations campaign against the Spaniards. The result has been a 420 year assault on the Hispanic character. Never mind that it was the weather that defeated the Spanish Armada of the most powerful nation at the time, not the English navy.

Some 36 years earlier in 1552, Bartolomé de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas, had penned a blistering account of the Spanish treatment of the indigenous people the Spanish crown claimed possession of entitled A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. As a tribute to his work de las Casas has been called Champion of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and his work has been considered an anti-imperialist tract against the Spanish enterprise in the Americas.

Using de las Casas’ work as fodder, the English crown spun a yarn about the Spaniards that persists to our day. Spaniards were characterized as “inherently barbaric, corrupt, and intolerant; lovers of cruelties and bloodshed.” According to one source, “painting the Spanish as cruel and avaricious became an integral portion of the patriotic duties of pamphleteers of London, Frankfort, and France.”  Thus emerged The Black Legend, equating Spaniards as “black-hearted,” in league with the prince of darkness himself. Protestant Europe seized this opportunity to paint Spaniards as repressive, inhuman, and barbaric.

Unfortunately, the origin of the Black Legend is attributed to de las Casas. Over the next century, 42 editions of A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies appeared in Holland, England, France, and Germany. In actuality, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, did not accuse the Spanish monarch of genocide (as has been imputed) but sought to instruct the King about better governance in the crown’s colonial enterprise. This is not to dismiss the colonial intolerances of imperialism. The English enterprise in the Americas was not any better or beneficent than the Spanish enterprise in the Americas. They were both imperial powers. The Spaniards were not any more cruel than the English.

Abetting inculcation of The Black Legend in the consciousness of Protestant Europe were references to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 as proof of Spanish iniquity and degeneracy, laying aside the historical facts that in 1290 England expelled its Jews and in 1306 France expelled its Jews. Anti-Jewish sentiment was rife throughout Europe. Another charge leveled against Spain to buttress The Black Legend was the “Inquisition” and the burning of hundreds of thousands of Protestant heretics, assertions that have no basis in historical fact. The Inquisition was real in Spain; as real as it was in England and France.

Demonization of Spaniards transmogrified into demonization of Hispanics in general. Maria de Guzmán calls this “Spain’s long shadow.”

Copyright © 2008 by the author. All rights reserved.



Originally published in Somos Primos, 105th  Issue
Part II

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

By the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spain held firm control of its empire in the Americas, a control that, despite its loss in attempting to gain a foothold in England by force of arms, continued for another 30 years until 1620 with establishment of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts by the English. Emboldened by the disaster of the Spanish Armada, which was actually a Luso-Hispanic collaboration, the English intensified their slanderous characterization of the Spaniards over those 30 years. Propagandists vilified Spaniards as “corrupt and cruel people who subjugated and exploited the New World Indians, stole their gold and silver, infected them with disease, and killed them in numbers without precedent” (

There is no dispute that the Columbian contact with the Americas impacted the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Spaniards and ineluctably altered the course of history. Within a century that contact devastated the Indian population within those zones of contact to one-tenth of their original size. That devastation was engendered principally by smallpox, influenza, and measles, diseases for which the Indians had no immunity. This is not to diminish Spanish excesses against the Indians, excesses such as forced labor, starvation, and corporal brutality practiced by all the other imperial powers around the globe. However, it was the Spanish excesses that “provided powerful ideological sanction for English involvement in the New World” (Digital History, Ibid.).

The heat of the Black Legend revealed the “true” nature of the conflict: Protestant England versus Catholic Spain. Some historians point to this conflict as the root cause of slavery in the Americas, singling out Bartolomé de las Casas as the architect of that trade by his suggestion in his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) to augment the indigenous workforce of the Americas with African slaves. But this view of non-whites as human commodities was part of the paradigm of ethnic-specific supremacy espoused by imperialism around the world then. Nothing in de las Casas’ work indicts it as the blueprint for the Black Legend or slavery.

In the years following establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Protestant English settlers (essentially Puritans, though hailed as Pilgrims) regarded themselves as the vanguard in America against the Papist Spanish Catholics. The Puritan English settlers believed it was their destiny to rescue the Indians from their Spanish oppressors; but the Puritans also saw slavery as authorized by the Bible and a natural part of society.

The most ardent of those rescuers was Cotton Mather (1663-1728), the most prodigious writer of Puritan America. In his zeal to free the Indians under Spanish rule from the yoke of Catholicism, he translated the King James Bible into a rough but tolerable Spanish for publication and distribution to the Indians of New Spain. Perhaps this contributed to the very common practice of intermarriage between Spanish colonists and the Indians of New Spain encouraged by Catholic priests.

By the end of the 17th century the most virulent reference of the Black Legend which made Spain less than European was propagation of the concept that Spain’s greedy thirst for gold could be attributed to Spain’s racial corruption after 800 years of Moorish occupation mixed with Visigothic and Jewish remnants. That reference has become so historically ingrained in the collective consciousness of the world that even today the Spanish past in the Americas is characterized as a search for gold, nothing else. Never mind that Spanish settlers established communities, built human networks, and practiced agriculture, ranching and mining whose techniques are still with us in the Americas.

The polemics of the Black Legend has so demonized Spain and its progeny that efforts to repair the character of Spain and its progeny seem almost insuperable.

Copyright © 2008 by the author. All rights reserved.


Originally published in Somos Primos, 106th  Issue
Part III
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross


The success of the Spanish enterprise in the Americas was stunning, and as exploits of that success circulated throughout Europe and the rest of the world during the 16th century, resentment toward Spain hardened into virulent propaganda. By the end of the 16th century, Spain’s dominion in the New World and the riches it amassed therefrom made it one of the world’s most singular powers. It was the first global empire of the 16th century and would remain a superpower for the next 150 years. Fierce competition with Spain over the spoils of the New World fueled the pitch and stridency of The Black Legend emanating from England, Holland, and France. With English, Dutch, and French toeholds in North America in the 17th century, the prejudices of The Black Legend in Europe took root in Colonial America. The clash of cultures was inevitable. 

Surprisingly, in 17th century America Catholic France was the most vocal in its diatribes against Spain, thinking that Spain was the abyss of darkness. In the 20th century, a French minister harrumphed that Spain had no literature. This illustrates how The black Legend befouled Spain’s reputation for centuries. However, toweHowhe most virulent denigrations of Spain came from the English. According to some historians, “The Black legend derived in part from the Spanish themselves who wrote about their experience in the New World with a naïve egotism that was easily turned by European translators into the dark deeds of evil and cruel colonial slavers and tyrants” ( In other words, if the Spaniards were characterized as malevolently as they were, they brought it on themselves. Moreover, “Protestants, particularly Calvinists, were at the forefront of industrial creativity and development when compared to Catholics, Jews, and Muslims” (Donna J. Guy, “The Morality of Economic History and the Immorality of Imperialism,” The American Historical Review, October 1999). Again, the emphasis on Protestant superiority and the moral high-ground.

This bitter war of words has become more pronounced in the 21st century in the form of “hate speech” anent the topic of undocumented Hispanics in the United States. American English-only efforts are a direct outgrowth of The Black Legend. As are the “distorted images that still prevail in American history textbooks, school curricula, radio programs, and political circles nowadays” (Miguel Perez, “The Black Legend Returns,” Creators Syndicate, March 25, 2008). The impediment to getting the historical recognition American Hispanics deserve is “an inconvenient truth”—denial of the Hispanic heritage of the United States, a denial “rooted in age-old stereotypes” (Tony Horwitz, “Immigration—and the Curse of the Black Legend,” The New York Times, July 9, 2006). According to Tony Horwitz, “most Americans associate the early Spanish in this hemisphere with Cortes in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru. But Spaniards pioneered the present-day United States, too” (Ibid.).This historical amnesia is the crux of the problem today for American Hispanics. To justify the westward expansion of the United States and the seizure of Spanish land, Americans pounced on Manifest Destiny and The Black Legend.

Gendered perceptions of American Hispanics, especially of Mexican origin, in 18th century America saw Mexican males as degenerate and cruel but found Mexican women by and large as exotic, winsome, and sensual. These perceptions were greatly exaggerated in the 19th century, especially after the Texas War for Independence and the Battle of the Alamo. More historians today regard the U.S. War against Mexico (1846-1848) as precipitated by The Black Legend.

 Copyright © 2008 by the author. All rights reserved.

Part IV
Originally published in Somos Primos, 107th  Issue

 By the 19th century there was no getting around it—thanks to the Black Legend, the global image of Spain (but especially in the Americas) was as “the bad seed.” Sherwood Anderson’s dramatization of William March’s novel The Bad Seed finds root in the 19th century imagination of Anglo-America about the Spaniards and their progeny in the Americas—especially in the United States—due to the persistent defamation of the Spanish character by Anglo American animosity. Spanish seed was bad, bad, bad! Unredeemingly bad.

 Historian David J. Weber has it right when he assesses the persistence of the Black Legend as furthering Anglo-American aspirations in North America which saw Spain and its progeny as “obstacles to their ambitions” of manifest destiny (The Spanish Frontier in North America, 1994). While this Hispanophobia has deep religious roots in Europe, its wellspring in the United States was fed by economic competition with Spain and its American colonies. Instead of greeting Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 with jubilation, Anglo Americans like the Historian and Unitarian minister Jared Sparks (later president of Harvard) opined instead that Mexican independence would not succeed because the Mexicans lacked “the materials and elements of a good national character” which the Spaniards never planted in them.

 The Black Legend fostered anti-Hispanic jingoism and the aspirations of manifest destiny in the United States of the early 19th century. This wave of Hispanophobia made it easier for Anglo Americans to provoke unrest in Mexican Texas, despite adjurations to the contrary by Anglo colonists in Texas who were granted land settlements by Mexico in the 1820s. In the space of a dozen years, those Anglo colonists, abetted by notable Mexicans who saw more favorable fortunes in an American Texas than a Mexican Texas, were successful in establishing the Republic of Texas as an independent nation for a decade until annexed by the United States in 1845, the act that precipitated the U.S. War against Mexico 1846-1848. From 1819 to 1848, the United States increased its area by a third at Spanish and Mexican expense, justified by the Black Legend as an open fatwah to take from the Spaniards and their progeny whatever they chose.

 Disparaging images of Mexicans in the period between 1819 ant 1848 were reinforced by such American writers as Richard Henry Dana who in Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, described the Mexicans of San Francisco as “an idle, thriftless people who could make nothing for themselves” (1959, 59).

In 1852, Colonel John Monroe, commander of the Ninth Military Department of the United States (which included New Mexico), reported to Washington that “the New Mexicans are thoroughly debased and totally incapable of self-government, and there is no latent quality about them that can ever make then respectable. They have more Indian blood than Spanish, and in some respects are below the Pueblo Indians, for they are not as honest or as industrious” (Congressional Globe, 32nd Congress, 2nd Session, January 10, 1853, Appendix, p. 104).

 Four years later, W.W.H. Davis, United States Attorney for the Territory of New Mexico, wrote a propos of his experiences with Mexican Americans that “they possess the cunning and deceit of the Indian, the politeness and the spirit of revenge of the Spaniard, and the imaginative temperament and fiery impulses of the Moor.” He describes them as smart and quick but lacking the “stability and character and soundness of intellect that give such vast superiority to the Anglo-Saxon race over every other people.” He ascribed to them the “cruelty, bigotry, and superstition” of the Spaniard, a marked characteristic from earliest times. Moreover, he saw these traits as “constitutional and innate in the race.” In a moment of kindness, Davis suggested that the fault lay no doubt on their “spiritual teachers,” the Spaniards, who never taught them “that beautiful doctrine which teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves” (New Mexico and her People, 1857, 85-86).

These were the images of American Hispanics that 19th century Anglo Americans left for their progeny of the 20th and 21st centuries, images which continue to fuel anti-Hispanic sentiments in the United States as part of the legacy of the Black Legend.                                                                                           

 Copyright © 2008 by the author. All rights reserved.


Part V
Originally published in Somos Primos, 108th  Issue

  By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

At the start of the 20th century, the United States had acquired Hispanic citizens who came with the Louisiana Purchase (1803)—principally in New Orleans , the Florida Cession (1819), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848), and the Spanish American War (1898)—Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines from the latter, wresting the last vestiges of the Spanish empire in North America. By this time, also, a national amnesia began to cloud the derring-do of 19th century American imperialism fueled by Manifest Destiny. While ostensibly paying homage to the Spanish enterprise in North America, the World’s Fair of 1892 in Chicago drew attention to the Columbian Exchange mostly as an Italian initiative since by then Italian Americans had appropriated Columbus as an Italian icon. 

 But hic and ubique across the continent there were mordant pockets of anti-Hispanic sentiment fueled by xenophobia and the Black Legend. What better way to blot out the achievements of the Spanish enterprise in North America than by omitting them from the national narrative or else by presenting them as stereotypic caricatures. For example, Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana, an outright anti-Hispano, led the fight against statehood for Arizona and New Mexico on the grounds that Mexican Americans were unaspiring, easily influenced, and totally ignorant of American ways and mores; that despite the passage of fifty years since the Mexican American War, Mexican Americans were still aliens in the United States, most of them having made no effort to learn English. According to Beveridge, such linguistic resistance was treasonous (Charles Edgar Maddox, The Statehood Policy of Albert J. Bevaeridge, 1901-1911 (Master’s Thesis, University of New Mexico, 1938, 42). Never mind that over 600 Mexican Americans, more than half the complement of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, served in Cuba with distinction during the U.S. War with Spain in 1898. Both Arizona and New Mexico were admitted to statehood in 1912 by which time the majority population of both states was white.

 Twentieth century America looked to Mexico for cheap labor. The American motto was “When we want you, we’ll call you, when we don’t –git” (Ernesto Galarza, “Without Benefit of Lobby,” Survey Graphic, May 1, 1931, 135). The increasing presence of “Mexicans” in the United States fueled anti-Hispanic sentiments further. In government reports and public news stories, “Mexicans” were characterized as “lacking ambition” and were inclined “to form colonies and live in a clannish manner” (Samuel Bryan, “Mexican Immigrants in the United States,” The Survey, September 7, 1912, 726).

 In a 1917 piece for The Survey (“My Mexican Neighbors,” March, 3, 624), Edith Shatlo King wrote in nuce: “When there is no occasion for personal loyalty, the Mexican is bitter in hatred. He is supersensitive to insults and slights, quick tempered, proud and high spirited. He lacks a habit of sustained industry and a practical sense which Americans cannot accept. And his mañana or faculty of putting off until tomorrow, and his slowness of movement are constant irritants. So, too, in American eyes, the looseness of their marriage ties is an obstacle to their development”

 Avarice and prejudice saw “Mexicans” (including Mexican Americans) from different perspectives. Avarice saw them as cheap, exploitable and therefore necessary; prejudice saw them as alien, unnatural and therefore unwanted. Both won, for “Mexicans” were discriminated against as much as they were exploited. In 1928 (August), Erna Ferguson wrote that “the Mexican frankly hates work and refuses to be bullied into believing that he loves it” (“New Mexico’s Mexicans,” The Century Magazine, 438). In that same piece she explained “Mexicans love to hold office. A title, even the title of Sheriff, fills a whole family with pride. An office that involves a sword or gold braid is so much the better. Spanish pride seems to rest on ancestry, on offices or titles more than on the individual’s achievement. Struggling for years to win wealth or power appeals to the Mexican not at all. This may be a social quality founded in a deep fatalism” (440).

 So completely had the spurious profiles of Mexicans and Mexican Americans gained acceptance in the United States by the end of the 1920s that even Mexican Americans themselves had come to reiterate dysphorically their assigned characteristics as articles of faith. In a piece entitled “Pachita” (The Family, April 1927, 44), Emilie Baca suggests that Pachita’s problems of promiscuity and immorality had something to do with the fact that she was Mexican: “Embued [sic] with the futile philosophy of the peon, she yields to whatever emotion is uppermost in her mind, taking her sorrows without much complaint as she takes her pleasures without comment—her outlook on life utterly apathetic.”

 These were the popular images of Mexicans and Mexican Americans pandered by the American public media, though some historians contend that by this time the Black Legend had begun to fade. Not true! It was as virulent as ever. World War I did not lessen that virulence. Neither did World War II. “For a century after the 1840s, Mexican Americans were subject to laws, norms and practices akin to the Jim Crow apartheid system that discriminated against blacks after the Civil War” (Ruben G. Rumbaut, “Pigments of Our Imagination: On the Racialization and Racial Identities of ‘Hispanics’ and ‘Latinos’” in How the U.S. Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and its Consequences, edited by José A. Cobas, Jorge Duany and Joe R. Feagin, Paradigm, 2008, 4)

 In the 20th century, the Mexican Civil War of 1910-1921 spurred a mass exodus of Mexicans to the United States. Estimates of that exodus place the number at more than a million and a half Mexicans who came north from Mexico, fleeing the destabilization of the country by a military coup. The population of this exodus swelled the number of “Mexicans” in the United States to a significant population size which along with the population of the conquest generation made up the foundation population of Mexican Americans today. In part, this ingress of Mexicans in American society kept the cauldron of anti-Hispanic sentiment hot.

 Interestingly, the term “La Leyenda Negra” (the Black Legend) was not coined until 1914 by Julian Juderia in his book La leyenda negra y la verdad histórica (The Black Legend and Historical Truth). Until 1914, the smear campaign of the Black Legend was carried out without label. However, the work which provided a broader view of the Black Legend was Historia de la Leyenda Negra hispanoamericana (History of the Hispanoamerican Black Legend), by Rómulo D. Carbia (1943).

 Copyright © 2008 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 109th  Issue
Part VI
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross 

In a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands is engraved the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus written in 1883 . Most Americans don’t know the entire poem but are familiar with the stirring lines that end the poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 To commemorate the centennial of the United States and to cement the friendship between France and the United States, a group of leading French admirers of American liberty commissioned Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a successful, 31-year-old French sculptor to construct a lasting monument to Franco-American friendship. On October 28, 1886, ten years after the centennial, the 305 foot statue was raised in New York harbor. And in 1903, cast as part of the bronze tablet fastened to an interior wall of the pedestal was the poem by Emma Lazarus that has become the credo for thousands of immigrants to America (Wikipedia).

 Arguably the most impressive global monument to the freedom of immigration, the Statue of Liberty and her poetic message have become tarnished by American xenophobia directed mostly at non-white supplicants of American freedom. An incident that stirred the tentacles of The Black Legend occurred in 1915 in San Diego, Texas, where one Basilio Ramos and others were arrested for fomenting a revolution to free the dismembered territory of the Mexican Cession from American control and organizing it as an independent republic.

 During the hysteria of the Plan de San Diego, more than 300 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were killed in retaliatory actions by hyped-up Anglo Americans (including the Texas Rangers) who saw the plotters of the Plan de San Diego as terrorists and German infiltrators penetrating the soft under-belly of the United States during the bellicose times of World War I (1914-1918) in Europe (The Handbook of Texas Online, Plan of San Diego). According to Arturo Rosales, “Anglo retaliation to the Texas-based Plan de San Diego in 1915 is unparalleled in its degree of anti-Mexican violence by Anglos” (History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, 30-31)

 To defend themselves from the hysterical wrath of El Plan of San Diego, Mexican Americans redoubled their efforts to create organizations which would protect their civil rights. In 1929 the efforts of a decade long struggle culminated with the formation in Corpus Christi, Texas, of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the oldest surviving Mexican American civil rights groups.

 Of the million and a half Mexicans who came to the United States between 1910 and 1930 in pursuit of the American dream, more than 500,000 of them were repatriated during the years 1930-1939. Like today’s ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids, immigration authorities in the 1930 rounded up “Mexicans” in major American cities and told them to “git” escorting them to the border regardless of their citizenship. Consequently, according to one source, “60% of the people deported were children born in the U.S. and others who, while of Mexican descent, were legal citizens” (http://en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Mexican_Repatriation).

 Another account of the repatriation reports that the campaign “resulted in widespread violation of civil and human rights, including illegally imprisoning immigrants, deporting United States-born children, not permitting returnees to dispose of their property or to collect their wages, deporting many no legally subject o deportation because of their length of . . . residence, separating families, and deporting the infirm” (“Mexican Repatriation in 1930 is Little Known Story” 24/mex%20repat.htm). Alfonso Lara born in the United States tells the story that when his father died in 1932 when he was 7, immigration officials came to his house and told his mother to go back to Mexico since there was nothing for her to do in the United States. Years later after growing up in Mexico he learned during a sojourn in the United States as a bracer that he was an American citizen. All this seems like preamble to the roundup of Japanese Americans in the early days of World War II.

 Indeed, immigration officials made no distinctions in rounding up “Mexicans” during the repatriation raids of the 1930s—a Mexican was a Mexican. There were no raids of these sorts along the U.S.—Canadian border. There are, of course, exigencies to bear in mind when one considers the impetus for the raids. The Great Depression of the 1930s created uncertainty and anxieties for the millions of Americans affected by hard times. Unemployment was at an all-time high, financial institutions were in wreckage, inflation was amok, and, in general, the United States was in shambles. Consequently making scapegoats of “Mexicans” helped assuage the public temper which fanned the flames of the Black Legend.

 Since 2005, however, public expressions of guilt  over the forced repatriation of American citizens during the 1930s has spurred a clamor from Mexican Americans for public apologies for those actions, apologies much like the ones expressed publicly over slavery and the roundup of Japanese Americans during World War II. California Senate Bill 670 in 2005 signed by Governor Schwarzenegger was among the first of those public apologies.

 The 1930s were not the most propitious times for Mexican Americans. However, in April of 1939 American Hispanics convened El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española, a national civil rights assembly. Most of the delegates were from California and the Southwest but many were from Montana, Illinois, New York, and Florida. The outcome was a manifesto that “called for an end to segregation in public facilities, housing, education, employment and endorsed the rights of immigrants to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation” (Vicki L. Ruiz, “Nuestra América: Latino History as United States History,” The Journal of American History, December 2006).

 While the vocabulary of America incorporated Spanish words as part of its geography (Nevada) and ranching lexicon (lariat) urban streetscapes (Mesa) and into its architecture as “Taco Deco” and “Mariachi Modern” (David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, Yale, 1994, 353), the Black Legend continued to churn out its propaganda like the little salt machine that spilled into the ocean.

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 110th  Issue
Part VII
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicna/Chicano & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

Given the circumstances in Europe, by the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 2nd term in 1936 Americans were pretty sure the country was headed for war. By 1940 the repatriation of Mexicans in the United States had eased up. From 1936 to 1940 vital stakeholders in the economy of the country saw the necessity for a larger workforce especially for jobs of last resort. Part of that larger workforce would include Mexicans, so much so that in 1942 the United States and Mexico signed a workforce agreement that brought Mexican workers to the United States under the label of the “Bracero Program”—the Helping Hand Program which ran from August 1942 to 1964 employing 4 million Mexican workers in the United States. Braceros worked essentially as farm workers though they worked in a number of other areas due to the labor shortage engendered by the war. Despite the aura of goodwill this program emanated, the presence of these braceros in the United States fomented increased antipathies toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

 With so many Americans involved in the war effort (troops and manufacturing) the harvests of America were in the hands of Mexicans. In 1942 Mexico declared war on Germany and by war’s end had aerial and ground forces in the Pacific. Counting the number of Mexican Braceros who stayed in the United States after the end of the Bracero Program and the number of Mexicans who managed to stay in the United States despite the repatriation efforts of the federal government during the 30s to return them to Mexico added to the original population of the Conquest Generation and you have the foundation population of Mexican Americans today.

 From 1940 to 1945 American Hispanics played a crucial role in America’s defense, especially Mexican Americans. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II, almost a million of them were Hispanics, mostly Mexican Americans. As a group, Hispanic members of the armed forces won more medals of honor during World War II than any other group. Hispanics served in the Army, the Army Air Corps, the Navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine. They were pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners. On the home front they were Air Raid Wardens, led War Bond Drives, served at UWSO’s, handed out donuts and coffee to American GI’s at train stations and military bases, scored of Hispanic mothers placed Gold Stars on their windows, and dutifully covered their windows at night in compliance with “blackout” instructions.

 Across the country, American Hispanics played crucial roles in the victory of World War II by working in defense plants building planes, tanks, jeeps, and other military equipment. In Pittsburgh, Mexican American women from the Ohio Valley communities of Mexican Americans built gliders in the Heinz plant which converted its ketchup machines to the war effort. From the founding of the nation, American Hispanics have served in the American armed forces and have responded to American crises in overwhelming numbers. More than half the complement of the Rough Riders with Teddy Roosevelt were Mexican Americans. The first draftee of World War II was Aguilar Despart, a Mexican American from Los Angeles. Among the first casualties of World War II after Pearl Harbor was Private Jose P. Martinez killed at the battle of Attu in the Aleutians, an action for which he received the Medal of Honor posthumously.

 Despite this outpouring of patriotism, in June of 1943 Mexican Americans were fleeing for their lives in Los Angeles in what came to be known nationally as the Zoot-Suit Riots. American sailors and marines began beating up Mexican Americans who were dressed in zoot suits, a sartorial style popular with Mexican Americans (called Pachucos) during World War II. Rationalizations to the contrary, the riots were sparked by the roots of the Black Legend. Instead of commenting on the race-based reasons for the riots, Lt Ayres of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department commented on the uses of knives by Mexican Americans by asserting that “the Caucasian, especially the Anglo-Saxon, when engaged in fighting, particularly among  youths, resorts to fisticuffs and may at times kick each other, which is considered unsportive, but this Mexican element considers all that to be a sign of weakness and all he knows and feels is a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or at least let blood” (Ralph Guzman, “The Function of Ideology in the Process of Political Socialization: An Example in Terms of the Mexican American People Living in the Southwest,” Unpublished manuscript, 1966, 35).

 Incredibly, Ayres’ report was duly endorsed “as an intelligent statement of the psychology of the Mexican people, particularly the youths” (36). His report to the Grand Jury stressed that Mexican youths are motivated to crime by certain biological or “racial” characteristics.  

Just as racism was responsible for the mass detention of Japanese Americans in 1942, racism bred by the Black Legend was responsible for the outbreak of Anglo hostilities toward Mexican Americans during World War II. In 1942 Mexican American youngsters in Los Angeles were convicted on fabricated evidence in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, serving almost 2 years in San Quentin before their convictions were reversed by the California District Court of Appeals. Carey McWilliams who served as Chairman of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee described the proceedings as “more of a ceremonial lynching than a trial in a court of justice” (North From Mexico, 1948, 231).

 During World War II in the Hispanic Southwest—in Texas particularly—Mexican Americans were forced to sit in theater sections reserved for “Mexicans”—it didn’t matter if the “Mexicans” were in American uniforms (George I. Sanchez, “Pachucos in the Making,” Common Ground, Autumn 1943). Anglos sat in the middle, “Mexicans” on the sides, and African Americans in the balcony. In Texas a Mexican American G.I. tells the following story: We went to a restaurant to eat, we sat down and the whole thing you know, and started ordering. The waitress asked me if I was Italian. I said, "No, no I'm not, I'm Mexican." And she said, "Well I'm sorry, sir, we don't serve Mexicans" (David López, “Saving Private Atzlan: Preserving the History of Latino Service in Wartime,” Diálogo Magazine, Center for Latino Research, Fall, 2005:9).

 In September of 1945, Private Benigno Aguirre, in uniform, was brutally beaten by “white rednecks” in San Angelo, Texas, and left for dead. When Mexican Americans sought help for Private Aguirre from the San Angelo community the response was “Aguirre is Mexican. Ask Mexicans for help” (David Montejano, “The Beating of Private Aguirre” in Mexican Americans in World War II edited by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, 2005, 41). Fifty years later Benigno Aguirre could only say, “estaba carajo en esos dias” (58).

 Despite their inordinate numbers in the military, Mexican Americans encountered difficulty in finding employment during the war. Anglos were placed ahead of them in jobs for which they were qualified. Some state employment agencies considered certain jobs “out of bounds” for Mexican Americans (125). Community recreation centers with swimming pools were closed to Mexican Americans. Not until 1948 were the public swimming pools of Fort Stockton, Texas, open for Mexican Americans.

 It’s relatively easy to dismiss out of hand these incidents as part of the racial heritage of the United States, but given the historical context of the Black Legend, one discerns the grip of the Black Legend in the pattern of these incidents. At the end of World War II in 1945, Gonzalo Mendez sued Orange Grove school districts over school boundaries that created de facto segregation. In 1946, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and in 1947 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the California decision, making Mendez v. Westminster a precedent for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In the trial testimony, the defending Superintendent characterized Mexican American children as inferior in “personal hygiene”, “scholastic ability”, and “economic outlook” ( Vicki L. Ruiz, Nuestra America: Latino History as United States History, Journal of American History, December 2006, 669).

 It has taken years of litigation for Hispanics to chip away at the vestiges of the black legend in America.


Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 111th  Issue


By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence/Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross


In 1968 on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) at its national convention in Chicago approved a resolution by the membership to establish a Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English as a memorial to the slain civil rights leader. I was fortunate to have been one of the founding members of the Task Force which included the NCTE Black caucus, the Chicano caucus, the Asian caucus, and the Native American caucus. Ernece Kelley was Chair of the Task Force. Our charge was to survey high school and college anthologies and readers (collections) of American literature for their content–to ascertain how inclusive they were vis-a-vis the minorities represented by the participating caucuses. Needless to say that inclusiveness was non-existent. The scathing Report of the Task Force published in 1972 entitled Searching for America gave all the anthologies F’s for inclusiveness. That was 1972.

In the years from 1945–the end of World War II–to 1972, American minorities, including American Hispanics, went searching for America only to discover that in almost three decades the United States had paid little heed to its growing minority populations. The anthologies of American literature–the texts most likely to exert the most influence on Americans in the educational system–had relegated American minorities to invisibility. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the public domain of American society seemed determined to keep its minority groups secret, notwithstanding the turmoil in the streets during the 60's.

What emerged most evident in Searching for America was that there were really two Americas: White America and the “Other America”–the “non-white” America. In their search for America, American Hispanics ran straight into the discrimination most of them thought they had exorcized from the body politic of the United States by their loyalty and sacrifices to the nation during its time of peril.

In 1948, the authorities of Three Rivers, Texas, refused to handle the funeral services for Felix Longoria (a native of the town) and to bury him in the municipal cemetery. During the war, Longoria had been killed in the Philippines and interred in a temporary ossuary there until the body could be transported to the United States. When that came to pass three years later, Longoria’s wife never imagined that her hero husband would not be buried with honors in the town’s cemetery.

Despite the intervention of Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a physician from nearby Corpus Christi and founder of the American G.I. Forum–a Mexican American veteran’s organization–the community of Three Rivers was adamant in its refusal to bury Longoria in the town’s cemetery. Dr. Garcia turned to Senator Lyndon Johnson for help who immediately arranged for Longoria to be buried in Arlington Memorial Cemetery with full military honors.

The Jim Crow laws south of the Mason-Dixon Line were as obdurate south of the Mexican-Dixon Line as they were south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Miscegenation laws singled out Mexican Americans as much as they singled out African Americans. The exclusionary practices of pre-war America in the Hispanic southwest remained as rigid in post-war America as they had been in the years leading up to and including the war years.

At the end of World War II, American Hispanics returned to what they thought would be a grateful nation, particularly since as a group they had won more medals of honor than any other group and had distinguished themselves not only in battle but by their numbers in the armed forces. In 1945 estimates for the American Hispanic population vary from 3 to about 4 percent of the American population of 132 million. Of the 16 million Americans in uniform during World War II, the 1 million American Hispanics in the armed services consti­tute about 1/16th of the total. For a group comprising only 4 percent of the American population that’s a significant constituency. American Hispanics responded to the call of the nation as patriotic Americans.

American Hispanics came home from the war, hung up their uniforms with their plastrons of medals, and went about looking for America and their place in it. Many of them went back to work at their old jobs in factories and mills, many went on to college under the G.I. Bill, and many strode to the horizon of American opportunity ready for the challenges of the future. Despite the largesse of the G.I. Bill, many Mexican American war veterans were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by denying them medical services for combat wounds after they were discharged.

What they were not prepared for was the status quo of discrimination engendered in large part by the Black Legend. To counter this discrimination Americans turned to the formation of Hispanic organizations. Perhaps what best characterized American Hispanic thought in the period from the end of World War II to the close of the 1950’s is that American Hispanics were divided about the promise of America, for a significant number of them lived under conditions that had changed little in almost a century. In fact, for many Mexican Americans conditions had grown worse in their transition from an agrarian people to an urban people. By 1960 statistics bore out that almost 80 percent of Mexican Americans lived in urban environments and were burdened with the additional problems of the urban crisis—principally poverty.

 The mere fact of desegregation in 1954 did not eliminate the myriad educational problems confronting Mexican Americans. The truth of the matter is that just as the educational system of the United States failed to accomplish its objectives with Anglo American children, it failed miserably to reach Mexican American children (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, “The Education of Mexican Americans,” New Mexico Review, Part I, September 1969; Part II, October 1969).

The fault of American education a propos Mexican American children was its thoroughly lexocentric attitude toward instruction in any language but English. Thus, Spanish-speaking Mexican American children were further disadvantaged by their inability to deal effectively with the language of instruction (see Carl L. Rosen and Philip D. Ortego (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca), Issues in Language and Reading Instruction of Spanish-speaking Children, International Reading Association, 1969, Problems and Strategies in Teaching the Language Arts to Spanish Speaking Mexican American Children, U.S. Office of Education, 1969, “Language and Reading Problems of Spanish Speaking Children in the Southwest,” Journal of Reading Behavior, Winter 1969).

In December of 1959 the editorial of Alianza Magazine asked: “Where do we go from here?” There was no question that Mexican Americans saw change as necessary for their amelioration, but the nature of that change was still dim and barely apprehended, although some Mexican Americans were observing closely the tactics of the Black Power Movement. Change was definitely in the air, for Mexican Americans had gone looking for America and had not found it. Perhaps what “did it” for Alianza Magazine was the Denver incident in 1957 in which Charlotte C. Rush, Patriotic Education Chairman of the Denver Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, decided that only “American boys” would carry the flag at the State Industrial School for Boys, saying “I wouldn’t want a Mexican to carry Old Glory, would you? (“Daughter of the American Revolution Slurs Mexicans,” Alianza, March 1957: 11).

By 1960 Mexican Americans had taken up the gauntlet and were ready to challenge the spurious venom of the Black Legend.

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 112th  Issue
Part IX
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence/Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

An old African proverb avers that the history of the hunt will always favor the hunter until lions have their own historians. What gave impetus to the necessity for American Hispanics to have their own historians was the emergence of the Chicano Movement in 1960, sparked by the solicitation of their votes by the election campaign of John F. Kennedy. This was the year Bert Corona, the legendary California activist, and others founded the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA). In 1961, the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO) was formed in Texas. The first fruits of Chicano politics in California elected Edward Roybal from Los Angeles to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. That same year, Cesar Chavez organized the National Farmworkers Association in California.

The following year (1963) Mexican Americans achieved a singular success in Crystal City, Texas, when they captured the city government. And in New Mexico, the Alianza Federal de Mercedes was founded by Reies Lopez Tijerina, a firebrand who sparked a rise in Mexican American militancy advocating for restitution of land grants in New Mexico. By 1964 Mexican American activists like Jose Angel Gutierrez, Corky Gonzalez, and Willie Velasquez were laying the groundwork for La Raza Unida political party which in 1972 fielded candidates with astonishing success throughout the Hispanic Southwest. From 1962 to 1966 Command Central for raza activism in South Texas was Texas A&I University in Kingsville, Texas, where Jose Angel Gutierrez and Carlos Guerra were undergraduate students. Their efforts were all directed toward counteracting the effects of the Black Legend and the discrimination it had spawned.

The flashpoint of Mexican American militancy came in 1965 when Cesar Chavez called for a strike against the Delano, California, grape growers with the cry of “Ya Basta!—Enough is Enough!” By 1966 Mexican American activists had become Chicanos—transmogrifying a pejorative term into a self-identifying term of pride. In 1967 President Johnson convened a Mexican American Summit in El Paso, Texas, to take up the concerns of Mexican Americans (see Philip D. Ortego (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca), “The Minority on the Border: Cabinet Meeting in El Paso,” The Nation, December 11, 1967).

In 1969 in response to a directive by the U.S. Department of Justice to desegregate its schools, the Dallas Independent School District re-labeled Mexican American students as white (removing them from the “other” category they had been historically counted as) and mixed them with African American students in a ploy of compliance. The Justice Department rebuked the school district’s actions. The Census count of 1970 revealed little progress in the education of Mexican Americans. In 1960 Mexican Americans had attained an average of 3.5 years of schooling; in 1970 that average had increased to 4.8 years (see Philip D. Ortego (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, “Montezuma’s Children,” The Center Magazine, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, November/December 1970).

In 1967 there occurred an event of extraordinary magnitude: El Grito: Journal of Mexican American Thought was published by a cohort of Mexican Americans at Berkeley, California, almost all of them

students with the exception of Octavio Romano who was a professor of anthropology and who was listed simply as an associate editor for the first two issues though the project was his brainchild. In concert, Romano and the students formed Quinto Sol Publications Inc. in a tiny office above a candy story in Berkeley with barely enough money to get the venture off the ground (“Quinto Sol Publications: Magazines Give La Raza New Voice,” The Denver Post, May 1971). The vision of the Quinto Sol founders was articulated in an editorial of the first issue of El Grito establishing the tone and direction of the Chicano Renaissance.

I was fortunate to have been part of that first wave of Quinto Sol writers with a number of works in the first and subsequent volumes of El Grito. Though the editorial is a bit long, it bears examination in its entirety.


Contrary to the general pattern of ethnic minorities in the history of the United States, Mexican Americans have retained their distinct identity and have refused to disappear in The Great American Melting Pot. Not having the good graces to quietly disappear, we have then compounded our guilt in America’s eyes by committing the additional sin of being glaringly poor in the midst of this affluent, abundant, and over-developed society.

    In response to this embarrassing situation, American ingenuity has risen to the occasion and produced an ideological rhetoric that serves to neatly explain away both the oppressive and exploitative factors maintaining Mexican Americans in their economically impoverished condition, and Mexican Americans’ refusal to enthusiastically embrace The American Way of Life with its various trappings. Although recitations of this rhetoric vary in emphasis and degree of sophistication, the essential message is the same: Mexican-Americans are simple-minded but loveable and colorful children who because of their rustic naiveté, limited mentality, and inferior backward “traditional culture,” choose poverty and isolation instead of assimilating into the American mainstream and accepting its material riches and superior culture.

    Formulated and propagated by those intellectual mercenaries of our age, the social scientists, this rhetoric has been professionally certified and institutionally sanctified to the point where today it holds wide public acceptance, and serves as the ideological premise of every black, white, and brown missionary’s concept f and policy towards Mexican Americans. Yet this great rhetorical structure is a grand hoax, a blatant lie—a lie that must be stripped of its esoteric and sanctified verbal garb and have its intellectually spurious and vicious character exposed to full view.

    Only Mexican Americans themselves can accomplish the collapse of this and other such rhetorical structures by the exposure of their fallacious nature and the development of intellectual alternatives. El Grito has been founded for just this purpose—to provide a forum for Mexican American self definition and expression on this and other issue of relevance to Mexican Americans in American society today. 

This editorial was the manifesto of the “The Chicano Renaissance”—to tear down the spurious defamations, distortions, slanders, libels and stereotypes of American Hispanics by providing American Hispanics with alternatives like El Grito where they could read the truths about themselves. Surfeited with the plethora of writings about them, writings which depicted them in a variety of literary contexts resorting to the most blatant stereotypes and racial clichés, publication of El Grito sparked a wave of Hispanic publications determined to confront and offset the effects of the Black Legend. These publications gave voice to the realities of Hispanic life and culture.

Because the images of Hispanics in American life were hard to put aside, Hispanic writers who sought in print to break the long-standing and readily accepted stereotypes about American Hispanics found little or no favor with magazine editors (See Cecil Robinson, With the Ears of Strangers: The Mexican in American Literature, University of Arizona Press, 1963). El Grito became to the Chicano Renaissance what Partisan Review, for example, became to the New Criticism. As the lion in the old African proverb, Chicanos now had their own historians. This has not, unfortunately, ended the spurious defamations, distortions, slanders, libels, and stereotypes of American Hispanics engendered by the Black Legend.

 During the 60’s some Hispanic writers managed to find literary outlets, but at the expense of their art as Hispanics. Like the market for black literary works, the market for Hispanic literary works was limited to those who wrote what most editors  expected; and what most editors of mainstreet presses  expected was the image of Hispanics (especially Mexican Americans) as indolent, passive, and humble who lived for fiestas and mañana. In 1968 an editor of a high school multi-ethnic text approached me for a story about Mexican Americans. I sent him “Chicago Blues,” a story about a Mexican American musician in Chicago. The story had won a European competition judged by Richard Wright. He rejected the story directing me to a ninth-grade reader in which J. Frank Dobie’s popular story “The Squaw Man” appeared, explaining that would provide me with an idea of the kind of material he was seeking for the multi-ethnic text. He was, of course, looking for the “queer,” the “curious,” and the “quaint” kind of “folksy” story most editors then had come to expect about Mexican Americans (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca/Philip D. Ortego, Background of Mexican American Literature, University of New Mexico 1971, 206).

In 1970 I sent a piece on “Chicano Poetry: Roots and Writers” to Richard Ohman, editor of College English, who sent it back to me with a note that he didn’t think the readers of College English would be much interested in the piece. The essay was later published in New Voices in American Literature edited by Edward Simmen (Pan American University, 1971) and reprinted in Southwestern American Literature (Spring 1972). These were the obstacles many Hispanic scholars encountered in those days (see Felipe de Ortego y Gasca/Philip D. Ortego, “Huevos con Chorizo: A Letter to Richard Ohman,” personal correspondence, Felipe de Ortego y Gasca archives, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin).

Owing to the Black Legend, it is still difficult for mainstream America to accept American Hispanics as Americans and that American Hispanics are a bilingual, bicultural, and binational people. The vibrant language of American Hispanics is ridiculed as “Spanglish” (poor Spanish and poor English), of little worth, reflecting the “mongrel” roots of their origins. Today’s Hispanic Renaissance is but the manifestation of a people’s coming of age which has been long overdue. Like Milton’s unsightly root, in another country it bore a bright and golden flower.

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 113th  Issue

Part X

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

As a consequence of the catastrophic events of 9/11, American Hispanics have come into the firing line of Nativist suspicions and aspersions that have equated Mexican narco-trafficking with terrorism and by extension have created a web that has ensnared Mexican Americans. The upshot has been that Mexican Americans specifically have fallen into the orbit of racial profiling along the U.S.—Mexico border. That the planes that demolished the twin towers of New York on 9/11 were all piloted by Saudi Arabians has been transmogrified into “Mexicans” including Mexican Americans.

This nativist animosity towards Hispanics in the Southwest has resulted in the construction of an 1800 mile-long wall between Mexico and the United States justified in the name of national security when no such wall is being constructed between Canada and the United States (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, “Bridges Not Walls: The ‘Great Wall of China’ in the United States,” The National Hispanic Forum, July 14, 2007). The growing number of Hispanics in the Southwest has raised the anxiety levels of nativists to the point of slanderous defamations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the continuing fashion of the Black Legend.

In a piece on “Fences and Neighbors,” Rick Toone characterized the U.S.—Mexico wall as “a shining symbol of American economic and environmental arrogance.” And in a article (Sunday, May 27, 2007; B01), Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Prize finalist, quotes the Mexican consul in Tucson calling the U.S.—Mexico wall “the politics of stupidity.” In the National Geographic (May 2007), Charles Bowden concludes that “Fences may make good neighbors, but the barriers dividing U.S. and Mexico are proving much more complicated.” One wonders: Why a wall between the United States and Mexico?

In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost was not advocating that “Good fences make good neighbors.”  The reference is to a statement by his neighbor who believes in keeping the fence between his property and the persona in the poem in good repair. We assume the persona in the poem is Robert Frost whose opinion is: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

In the current flap over building a wall between Mexico and the United States, it would be well to keep in mind Robert Frost’s injunction “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That “something” is that a wall is a barrier. Frost says:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines . . . .

While Mexican apple trees will never get across the border to eat the cones under American pines, a wall between the United States and Mexico is intended to keep Mongol hordes of Mexicans at bay, a consummation devoutly to be wished by Xenophobic Americans as Hamlet would have put it.

In the case of a “wall” between the United States and Mexico, a wall is a manifestation of conflict, just as the Berlin Wall was a manifestation of conflict. Essentially, conflict is an interactive process or behavior. That’s why the Berlin Wall escalated the Cold War. And why a wall between the United States and Mexico will only escalate the enmity between the two countries.

Ronald Reagan’s plea to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”—referring to the Berlin Wall—is not what brought down the wall. On the contrary, it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s response that brought down the wall. Instead of escalating the cycle of conflict, the Soviet leader chose to ignore the rhetoric of conflict and for whatever reasons take the first step in repairing U.S.—Soviet relations. There is no doubt that the U.S.—Soviet conflict had developed mutually destructive patterns of interactive behavior, the consequences of which heralded Armageddon.

When asked about the U.S.—Mexico wall in a 2006 visit to the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev responded that the United States seemed to be building the Great Wall of China between itself and Mexico (Midland Reporter-Telegram, 10/18/2006).

In the current American rhetoric about controlling the nation’s borders the question looms large: Why on the one hand did the U.S. want the Berlin Wall torn down and on the other hand does it want to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico? There is no evading the possibility of racism and selective amnesia about the history of walls emanating from the Black Legend.

The history and philosophy of walls takes us back to antiquity. Between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, the northern states of China began to build a wall along their northern border with Mongolia in an effort to stave off Mongol penetration. Over centuries and dynasties, “the great wall of China” came into being as a 4,000 mile fortification in defense of Chinese borders. In places, the wall was 25 feet high and 30 feet wide.

In 122 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian built a wall across Britain to keep Romans safe from the hostile Picts. The wall stretched from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, 80 Roman miles long, 10 feet wide and 15 feet high. The wall is still there (N.S. Gill, Your Guide to Ancient/Classical History).

In like fashion, in the 20th century the French built the “Maginot Line” as a walled fortification against German incursions. With the use of aeroplanes, the Germans simply flew over the Maginot Line. General George Patton called the Maginot Line a monument to man’s stupidity. Even the Berlin Wall was not impenetrable.

While the Berlin Wall did function as the perimeter of a "prison" state, its principal objective was to keep out extra-territorial influences that were anathema to the state dictum of the Soviet Union. A U.S. wall on its border with Mexico has the same objectives--to keep out extra-territorial influences (the uninvited, the unwelcome, and the unwanted--Mexicans) that are deemed anathema to the apodictic values of the United States.

Will a wall between the United States and Mexico help the United States in controlling its border with Mexico? The Harvard philosopher George Santayana put it well when he opined that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. What is that lesson here? That walls are no substitute for diplomacy.

Those barriers are indeed complicated despite the facile rhetoric of Lou Dobbs and Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, “CNN and Lou Dobbs: Journalism or Jingoism,” posted on The Latino American Experience, Greenwood Press, January 18, 2008). Those barriers have their genesis in the historical conflict between Spain and England giving rise to the Black Legend, venomous defamation of the Spaniards by the English, perpetuated by the venomous defamation of Mexicans by Anglo Americans.

American manifest destiny was fueled in part by the Black Legend. The vision of a United States from sea to shining sea was at the expense of Spain and its Hispanic progeny in the Hispanic Southwest. Manifestations of the Black Legend abound.

A little known manifestation of the Black Legend occurred in the 1920’s in El Paso, Texas, where Zyklon-B (hydrocyanic acid used later in Hitler’s gas chambers) was used regularly as a vermin-control delousing agent on hundreds of thousands of “dirty, lousy people coming into this country from Mexico” (David Dorado Romo, Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez: 1893-1923, pp 240-243,Cinco Puntos Press, 2005). Eight decades later, the toll of that episode is still immeasurable.

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 114th  Issue 
Part XI
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

In The Image (1967), Kenneth Boulding coined the term “eiconic” referring to a “chronologically fixed image”–a sort of frozen snapshot we have in our minds of people. That eiconic image keeps us from seeing people as developmental entities. That’s why we still see in our mind’s eye the American Indian, for example, with a war bonnet, robed in animal furs, and wearing moccasins even though American Indians do not dress that way today.

That 18th century snapshot of the American Indian is a visceral stereotype. Via these visceral stereotypes, the Black Legend fixes in the mind an eiconic image of Hispanics frozen in time as part of an “infra-reality,” that is, an interior reality inconsistent with external reality.

That eiconic image was at work in 1967 when a Texas publisher asked me to contribute a story for an anthology of Texas stories. I submitted the short story “Chicago Blues” about a Chicano musician in the early post-World War II years. The story had won a major European award juried by Richard Wright. The pub­lisher sent the story back to me explaining that he was expecting a story along the lines of J. Frank Dobie’s “The Straw Man”–a piece that caricatured Tejanos (Mexican Texans) as simple peasants dressed in poplin, wearing huaraches and a straw hat.

Until the advent of motion pictures (film) in the early 20th century, the primacy of print to diffuse information and eiconic images was paramount. In its diffusion of celluloid images and sub-textual public values, film surpassed the power of print to reach mass audiences. Omar Khayam, the Persian poet wrote: The moving finger having writ moves on / and all your piety and wit / cannot cancel half a line of it. Today, the power of the motion picture camera (now video camera also) to convey a visual reality–however true or false–has become the dominant medium in shaping public values. The motion picture captures eiconic images of people frozen in frames. And all our piety and wit cannot cancel half a line of it.

Unfortunately, in the case of American Hispanics the public values transmitted by film and video are as laden with stereotypes as their print cohorts. From the begining of silent films to the first “talkies” in 1927 (The Jazz Singer) the images of Hispanics in American films simply perpetuated the perniciously eiconic stereo­types extant in American society engendered by the Black Legend. Non-Hispanic film audiences could now see on “the silver screen” the stereotyped images of Hispanics they could theretofore only imagine from the printed page. They could now see Hispanics in poverty-strewn villages, lazing in the sun, uncivilized, half-naked or else see them as mustachioed bandits surrounded by hot-blooded señoritas of easy virtue and loose morals (Luis Reyes and Peter Rubie, Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film and Television, 2000, 3).

According to Reyes and Rubie, “Bandits and sleepy Mexican towns” were standard features in silent West­erns in which the vicious greaser image came into being. Bronco Billy and the Greaser and The Greaser’s Revenge (both 1914), for example, confirmed “the Mexican as an evil and sinister villain” (6). Reyes and Rubie contend that the problem of Hollywood movies with Latino subjects or characters has been the ignorance of film makers about Latinos and their history and culture (18). For example, “the battle of the Alamo in 1836 . . . left deep seated prejudices between Anglo Americans and Mexicans that are still reflected over 100 years later in such movies as Man of Conquest (1939), The Last Command (1955) and John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960)” ( 5). Films reflected the low esteem in which Hispanics were held by the non-Hispanic public. With few exceptions, Hispanics were rigidly typecast in films as gardeners or gangsters, as maids or madames. In the main, “Hispanic women have usually been relegated to some version of the stout mamacita, the sexy spitfire, and the suffering mother or girlfriend” (313)

Like films, television was no better. “Although Hispanics have been featured on various series since televi­sion began, there have been few Hispanic star or character-driven vehicles” (Reyes and Rubie, 312). Though the George Lopez Show is an exception, its characterizations of Hispanics are stereo­typed with buffoonery and antics for comedic effect at the expense of Hispanics. To counter this trend, Hispanic actors organized Nosotros, to improve the images of Hispanics in American films and television.

While it’s true that people should be able to laugh at themselves in comic situations, Reyes and Rubie conclude that “accepting unchallenged stereotyped portrayals in the movies is a form of passive racism.” That Hollywood’s bottom-dollar mentality “masks” that passive racism; that “the insidiousness of racism is not so much the overt acts of [fascism], but the moral cowardice of those who avoid speaking out against off-the-cuff offensive remarks.” For Reyes and Rubie there is “a fine line between the artistic tyranny of ‘politi­cal correctness’ and being sensitive to perpetuating a stereotype” (2).

The most notable television shows that parlayed Hispanic stereotypes to success were The Cisco Kid and the Zorro series. Both employed unabashed stereotypes of Hispanics, not to mention that few Hispanics played the lead role. After a 38 year hiatus, Luis Valdez directed the 1994 version of The Cisco Kid with Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin without the gratuitous stereotypes. While this was a formidable leap forward for Hispanics in films and television, the eiconic images of Hispanics in these media still abound.

The pervasive casting of non-Hispanics as Hispanics has lessened today, providing Hispanic actors more opportunities for non-typecast roles. Until the civil rights era many Hispanic characters in film had been played by non-Hispanics. In Viva Zapata, for example, Marlon Brando played the key role of Zapata while Anthony Quinn played the role of the brother. In Villa Rides, Yul Brynner played the part of Pancho Villa. In The Milagro Beanfield War a number of Hispanics appeared in supporting roles, but the only American Hispanic (U.S.) actor was Freddy Fender. In a number of television shows there are references to (phantom) Hispanics with Hispanic surnames who do not appear on screen. And non-Mexican Hispanic actors are cast as Mexicans or Mexican Americans. In the TV series Empire (1962-64), Charles Bronson played Paul Moreno, a Mexican American ranch hand.

Combating the effects of the Black Legend has been a steep incline for Hispanics in the United States. What is most evident about that struggle is that progress for Hispanics is not a matter of largesse oblige but of nous meme oblige, collective efforts to overcome the obstacles in the wake of the Black Legend.

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Somos Primos, 115th  Issue
Part XII
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross 

It seems fitting by way of giving closure to this series on The Black Legend to go back to the beginning, back to the event that gave it impetus. Why? Because the question of the Spanish Armada is still inter­secting our lives in ways that are germane to the historical events of our time. That may seem strange since 421 years separate us from the event of the Spanish Armada which King Philip II (Felipe el Segundo) of Spain sent to re-instate England into the Catholic fold.

King Philip firmly believed that it was God’s will that he liberate England from its Protestant heresy. More personally, though, Philip felt entitled to the throne of England since 34 years earlier in 1554 he had married Mary Tudor, the Catholic Queen of England, known historically as Bloody Mary for her persecution of English Protestants. That marriage was orchestrated by the Emperor Charles V (Philip’s father) “to form an alliance of England, Spain and the Netherlands against the power of France” (David Howarth, The Voyage of the Armada, Lyons Press, 1981, 33).  The Emperor’s motive was for Philip to produce an heir “who would keep England safely within the [Catholic] Church when Mary died” (Ibid.).

Despite the vicissitudes of arranged marriages and a tumor mistaken for an heir, Mary died and Philip became King of Spain on the death of his father. Feeling bound by the ambitions of his father, Philip sought to marry Mary’s sister Elizabeth as a boon to England thereby fulfilling his father’s ambitions to bring England back to the true faith. Rejected, Philip turned his attention to Mary, Queen of Scots, determined to cement the nexus between Spain and England. Circumstances botched everything, and 30 years later in 1584 Philip began assembling the ships that were to become the Spanish Armada. He was determined by hook or crook to “save” England.

Philip was so determined that he ignored the runes against the plan to invade England. At the time, Spain was ensconced firmly as the world’s super power. It controlled the Americas, the Philippines, the Netherlands, a part of Italy. What more could England add to the Spanish holdings other than more real estate? The Supreme Leader of all that was Spain and its empire was ready to plunge his people into the dark hole of power. The Armada, “the largest fleet in all the history of the sea” (Howarth, 17), sailed from Spain in May of 1588 with more than 30,000 men. Four months later it lay in tatters, Spanish soldiers and sailors strewn from the Netherlands to Scotland and Ireland.

From today’s perspective such a plan would seem to belie reason. But in the 20th century and into the 21st, national leaders have plunged their people into equally dark holes of power and equally belied reason. But the point is not the plan but the unexpected consequences of the plan–namely, the Black Legend.

In 1588 Spain was not only at the height of empire but at the height of a golden age of letters, paralleling the golden age of Greece. Spanish theaters burgeoned with audiences hungry for the works of Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina, Ruiz de Alarcón, and Lope de Vega who sailed with the Spanish Armada and survived its infelicitous end (John A. Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower, Harper & Row, 1963, 200).

Given this cultural zenith, what would compel King Philip to undertake such a problematic venture as the conquest of England? Most historians suggest megalomania. It seems to me, however, that a part of the answer is supplied in the current film Frost/Nixon and may be further adduced in works still to be written about the reasons for the American invasion of Iraq. We should bear in mind, however, that the plan for the Spanish Armada went awry not because of its execution but because terrestrial circumstances interfered with its execution. The Spanish Armada ran into a perfect force 10 storm that demolished not only half the Spanish fleet but also two-thirds of its contingent troops (soldiers and sailors). The adventure and the failure of the Spanish Armada affected all of Spain from its inception to its end.

The plan should have included better weather intelligence. The winds and gales of the English Channel and the North Atlantic defeated the Spanish Armada. While describing the task of the Armada as impossible, Howarth indicates that “the faults of the armada were technical, not human” (244) despite the human element of decisions. Everyone was blamed for the failure of the Armada except the King who to the end of his life expressed no remorse for the loss of life nor for assembling and sending the armada to its untimely end, saying only  “I sent them to fight against men, not storms” (Howarth, 246).

A storm defeated the Spanish Armada, not the English navy. Drake and the other English maritime leaders feared the reassembly and return of the Spanish Armada, unaware of its demise. In the bravado of the aftermath, an English communiqué of the time boasted that the queen’s “rotten ships” staved off the “sound ships” of the Spaniards. This was followed by a broadsheet goading Spanish pride that English valor beat and shuffled the Spanish Armada from its shores, noting that Flavit Jehovah et dissipati sunt– God sighed and they all fled. Thus began the Black Legend.

Both the English and the Spaniards attributed the outcome of the matter to God. The English believed they defeated the Spaniards because God was on their side; the Spaniards believed it was God’s will that they did not defeat the English. For us who know the aftermath of the story, we should heed Santayana’s dictum that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. The Black Legend has endured long enough. It’s time to lay it to rest.

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.